Raul Castro arrives in Venezuela for talks with Hugo Chavez

CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greeted Cuban President Raul Castro with an effusive hug and military honors Saturday morning here as the Cuban leader began his first trip abroad since officially replacing his ailing brother Fidel in February.

Chavez introduced each of his cabinet ministers and high military commanders to Castro at Maiquetia International Airport, 30 minutes outside of Caracas. The two leaders then disappeared from public view.

They are scheduled this afternoon to lay a wreath at the tomb of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century independence leader who is Venezuela's greatest hero and serves Chavez's guiding star.

Castro and Chavez are then supposed to sign a series of bilateral agreements at the Miraflores presidential palace.

Officials from both countries have been meeting in Caracas to find ways to increase trade between the two countries.

Venezuela is Cuba's most important trading partner, delivering nearly 100,000 barrels per day of crude, diesel and jet fuel to the island nation.

In turn, Cuba has up to 30,000 medical personnel, sports coaches and agricultural advisers working in Venezuela.

The trip has attracted little advance press coverage in Venezuela and Cuba.

But Chavez said on Wednesday, in announcing the visit, that the trip was important because Fidel Castro had taken his first trip abroad to Venezuela immediately after the Cuban Revolution nearly 50 years ago.

Press accounts have said Raul Castro felt pressured by Chavez to visit Venezuela before a trip on Tuesday to Brazil for a meeting of Latin America and Caribbean nations.

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